IT WAS undoubtedly nippy in Siberia yesterday and, fair enough, it can’t have been all that pleasant in the North Pole either, but whatever kind of baltic hell existed in those places it was as nothing compared to the ferocious bitterness experienced in St Mirren – make that St Brrr-en – Park.
That’s the first thing to say. Given the conditions, high winds and driving rain, we got a better game than we probably had a right to expect. The second thing to say is that it is on days such as this that champions reveal themselves. Celtic took an age to find themselves, but they did and this was their 12th straight win in the SPL. Not since 2008 under Gordon Strachan have they won as many on the bounce.
It’s far too early to call the outcome of the SPL title race, but Celtic showed enormous character here. They toiled horribly for the longest time. Their passing was woeful, their goal was peppered and their keeper, Fraser Forster, kept them in it with a string of decent saves. Just when you started to think that they were going to find nothing to lift the siege that their hosts were laying at their door, Celtic came good in a major way. James Forrest cracked in the opener with 19 minutes left, Scott Brown curled in a gorgeous second with two minutes remaining and even then, they could have had a third when Thomas Rogne’s header was incorrectly ruled out for offside.
To go from potential casualties to runaway winners in such a short space of time was impressive. Celtic were helped on their way, in fairness, by two substitutions, Kris Commons coming on for the ineffective Ki Sung Yueng and Anthony Stokes replacing the anonymous Georgios Samaras. The pair of them added urgency and goal threat, qualities their team desperately lacked before they appeared. Forster was their main man, though. He showed yet again what a terrific shot-stopper he is.
St Mirren will have felt pig sick. They made most of the running before Forrest undid them, they handled the conditions better, they had the better chances, they dominated for chunks of the match, but could not find a way past the Celtic goalkeeper. In the opening half they had opportunities through a Marc McAusland shot that Forster saved, a diving header from Dougie Imrie, saved again, and a Graham Carey effort that went wide. In response, all Celtic really had to show for their troubles was a 35-yard drive out of nowhere from Gary Hooper, pushed away in the breeze by Craig Samson.
The second spell only brought an increase in St Mirren’s chances. Imrie again, saved once more. A David van Zanten effort was flicked on by Paul McGowan but Forster’s reflex save was superb. Imrie had another moment and once again Forster was up to the job, this after a fine flowing move involving Kenny McLean and McGowan that cut Celtic open.
St Mirren have had a strange old time of it of late, a tumultuous victory over Rangers on Christmas eve followed by three SPL games in which they have gained a miserable one point, the last of which saw them lose 5-2 to ten-man Hearts. Confidence sky-high one minute and confidence south of the floor the next. But here they were taking the fight to the Old Firm again. The nagging doubt, though, came with each missed chance and the feeling that Celtic would surely produce something before the game was up. They did. And how.
Forrest had a slow beginning to the match, his touch a little off, his threat easily nullified. But he is a tenacious young man, a player of quality when he gets up a head of steam. When the goal came, his name was all over it, not just in the fact that he scored but because he was the one who won the free-kick from where everything else flowed. He was hauled down amid a run down the right wing, Commons putting over the free-kick which Samson came to meet with a punch. The ball carried to Brown whose deft touch offered Forrest the opportunity to run on to it and smack it low past Samson. The relief from the visiting Celts and their manager on the touchline was unmissable.
Even then, though, St Mirren had chances that had them suffering in the aftermath. Lee Mair’s point-blank header was stopped by Forster, then Imrie fizzed a shot across Forster’s goal. They were still alive in the game. And then they were dead. Brown’s curler did for them. The captain made light of it afterwards. “It was a cross. I don’t know how it managed to go in,” he smiled, but there was more to it than that. “I was going for goal but I didn’t know whereabouts [in the goal] I was going for.”
In other words, he tried his luck and it came off. Brown, much like Neil Lennon, paid tribute to St Mirren. “They played really well,” he said. “They kept the ball on the deck. They came out to play football and they’re a great footballing side.”
A few crumbs of comfort, perhaps. But the points went elsewhere. What a huge win for Neil Lennon.